Like a Prayer 

Léon Morin, Priest
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

Jean-Pierre Melville’s name evokes images of fedoras and lengthy trench coats billowing like church robes. In appropriating iconic symbols of American gangster films, Melville created his own world, in which hardboiled mythologies meshed with the philosophical concerns of post-World War II France. But after several films in this mold, such as Bob le Flambeur and Deux Hommes dans Manhattan, Melville wanted a change. Film historian Tom Milne writes: “In a spirit of contradiction, it seems, since the Nouvelle Vague was by then at flood tide, he announced with his sixth film [Léon Morin, Priest] in 1961, that he was tired of being the darling of a handful of cineastes.”

And “contradictory” it is. The events of Léon Morin, Priest are entirely formed by the circumstances of World War II — the story can be broken down into three parts: the Italian, German and American occupations — yet it is hardly a “war” film. Neither is it a “Catholic” or even “religious” film, even though the majority of the dialogue consists of discussions between a priest (Breathless slacker Jean-Paul Belmondo) and an atheistic, Communist widow (Emmanuelle Riva, the haunted heroine of Hiroshima, Mon Amour). In the same way that we witness the Nazi-led deportations through a reflection in a window, the film is an impressionistic prism of life in occupied France. Melville shows his mastery of cinematic language in his ability to confront complex issues explicitly through swift, deft strokes that impact the audience without resorting to heavy-handedness.

Just as it is difficult to pigeonhole the film, the characters are suffering their own identity crises. Riva plays Barny, a single mother whose sexual, political and spiritual beliefs are not so assured as they used to be. With all the men off at war, she harbors secret crushes on her female co-workers but refuses to act on them. Meanwhile, an attempted prank in a church confessional puts her face-to-face with Léon Morin (Belmondo), a young priest who is surprisingly receptive to Barny’s criticisms of bourgeoisie Christianity. So begins their relationship in which philosophical discourses are laden with flirtatious undertones. Steadfast in his beliefs, Morin’s subtly sexual parlays with Barny and other female churchgoers belie his own doubt. “Human nature is corrupt,” he tells Barny, “but we shouldn’t accept it. The war has changed our way of life.” And while they cling to their own ideologies with strained conviction, Melville refuses to pass judgment, instead allowing their lingering uncertainties the honor of remaining irresolute.

April 17-23 at Film Forum

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